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Gunning for Understanding: Facebook and the Gun Control Debate in America

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maggie Callahan
April 30, 2019

The idea that a Facebook group could be used to forge consensus and mutual understanding of gun rights in the United States seems farfetched at best. Using a social media platform that has been charged with unraveling democracy to discuss one of the most divisive and salient issues in American politics appears almost destined for failure. This seemingly hopeless project, however, was undertaken by Advance Local who partnered with Spaceship Media, Newseum, Essential Partners, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and Time with success.

Following the Parkland shooting in which 17 high school students were killed and 14 were injured, civil unrest over guns in America has been amplified to new heights. In 2018 alone, there were nearly 58,000 incidences of gun violence and 340 mass shootings in the United States, with nearly one mass shooting every day of the year. These deaths are executed by a weapon for which ownership is codified as an individual right in the American Bill of Rights. This incredibly divisive issue became the subject of Advance Local’s ongoing mission to build mutual understanding across America in 2018 following the Parkland shooting. The title of this specific project was Guns, An American Conversation.

21 candidates were recruited for a two-day intense workshop at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. During this workshop, Essential Partners, a nonprofit specializing in building peaceful conflict resolution strategies and healthy relationships, taught selected candidates effective partner exercises dealing with how to relay their grievances and questions in ways that furthered and enriched the discussion.

These 21 candidates were joined by 130 other participants in a closed Facebook group.  Advance Local selected candidates from a variety of backgrounds that spanned the full spectrum of opinion on the gun debate. 51 percent of these participants felt strongly for or against gun control, and the remaining 49 percent represented viewpoints between these extremes from neutral to somewhat supporting or against gun control. Participants included victims of gun violence, teenagers, mothers, ex-offenders, lawyers and hunters.

The group discussion relied primarily on the methods and strategies of dialogue journalism. This method uses journalism to better democracy by opening a platform for civic communication, which reduces polarization by creating a structured environment. This structured environment emphasizes the need for participants to express their view without the insults that typify polarizing political debates.

In addition to dialogue journalism, strong moderation was used to maintain peaceful, thoughtful discussion. Seven moderators were chosen to build personal relationships through introductions with the outcome each hoped for during the discussion. Then, moderators worked to establish guidelines on etiquette and the management of “explosive comments.” This process involved quieting some viewpoints and amplifying others while refraining from making or deleting too many comments. This moderation technique allowed for insightful discussion in which each participant was given the tools to voice their opinion without being talked over or down to.

The initiative achieved its intended effect: creating a deeper understanding of differing views regardless of personal opinion. Participants, though not always reaching an agreement on the issue, and with 3 members removed from the group, were largely able to understand opposing viewpoints. The process also debunked the stereotyping that is common for opposing position members. For example, a Latina member of the NRA served to debunk the typical persona of an NRA member as old, white and male and demystified her position.

Mirroring efforts have been launched by participants following this discussion in their local communities across America, and the participants have created a book club to continue their discussion beyond gun control. The Facebook group connected geographically and ideologically distant viewpoints and enhanced mutual understanding in an unexpected and unprecedented way.

Guns, an American Conversation has served to demonstrate that technology can be used for noble aims in democratic participation. Facebook’s ability to connect individuals who may have never otherwise met proved essential in humanizing and depolarizing the gun debate for participants. This project further highlights how accessible the tools of democratic participation are if citizens are gunning for understanding and have the tools to constructively moderate and discuss topics. Understanding is no more than one enlightened Facebook group away.

To learn more about this case visit https://participedia.net/en/cases/guns-american-conversation-0. To read more about other innovative applications of public participation visit, www.participedia.net.

Author: Maggie Callahan is a master’s student of public diplomacy at Syracuse University and a graduate assistant for the Participedia Project at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She holds a bachelor’s in political science and economics from Mercer University and has worked in Georgian and Moroccan nongovernmental organizations and the American government. Follow her on Twitter: @laissezmaggie

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